February 3, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 6

Quotation Marks

In English writing, quotation marks, or quotes or speech marks, are punctuation marks surrounding a quotation, direct speech, or a literal title or name. Quotation marks can be used to indicate a different meaning of a word of phrase than the one typically associated with it, and are often used to express irony.

Quotation marks are written as a pair of opening and closing marks in either of two styles: single (‘…’) or double (“…”).

Quotation and speech:

Single or double quotation marks denote either dialogue or a quotation. Double quotes are preferred in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, whereas single quotes are more usual in the United Kingdom and South Africa. A publisher’s or author’s style may take precedence over regional general preferences. The most important thing is to be consistent. Notice that in further examples, I will use the double quotation mark, but the single quotation mark is also correct.

“Good afternoon, sir,” said Monfore. “How may I help you?”
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said Monfore. ‘How may I help you?’

For speech within speech, you use the opposite of the outside quotation marks.

Martha replied, “He said, ‘Martha, if you’re ever going to get serious about school, now’s the time to do it.’”
Martha replied, ‘He said, “Martha, if you’re ever going to get serious about school, now’s the time to do it.”’

When quoted text is interrupted, such as with the phrase he said, a closing quotation mark is used before the interruption, and an opening quotation mark after. Commas are also often used before and after the interruption.

“Petra,” said Emmerich, setting his ice aside, “if I might ask, how did you become interested in mechanics?”


A common use of quotation marks is to indicate or call attention to ironic word usage.

He shared his “wisdom” with me.
The lunch lady plopped a glob of “food” onto my tray.

Quotes indicating verbal irony, or other special use, are sometimes called scare, sneer, shock, distance, or horror quotes. They are sometimes gestured in oral speech using air quotes, or indicated in speech with a tone change or preceding by supposed[ly] or so-called. It should be noted that quotations are not used for emphasis.

Signaling unusual usage:

Quotation marks are also used to indicate that the writer realizes that a word is not being used in its current commonly accepted sense:

Crystals somehow “know” which shape to grow into.

Quotation marks can be used to distance the writer from terminology, so as not to be associated with it, for example, to indicate that a quoted word is not official terminology, or that a quote phrase presupposes things that the author does not necessarily agree with. This is usually done to indicate that the terminology is someone else’s opinion or thoughts on the matter. It should be noted that this usage of quotation marks loses its potency the more it’s used.


Either quotations marks or italic type can emphasize that an instance of a word refers to the word itself, rather than its associated concept. Note that where I use quotes, you can also use italics.

“Cheese” is derived from a word in Old English.
“Cheese” has three e’s.

Titles of artistic works:

Quotation marks, rather than italics, are generally used for the titles of shorter works. Whether these are single or double depends on the context; however, many styles, especially for poetry prefer the use of single quotation marks.

  • Short fiction, poetry, etc.: Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel”
  • Book chapters: The first chapter of 3001: The Final Odyssey is “Comet Cowboy”
  • Articles in books, magazines, journals, etc.: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays”, Wireless World, October 1945
  • Album tracks, singles, etc.: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”

As a rule, a whole publication should be italicized, whereas the titles of minor works within or a subset of the larger publication (such as poems, short stories, named chapters, journal papers, newspaper articles, TV show episodes, editorial sections of websites, etc.) should be written with quotation marks.

Nicknames and false titles:

Quotations marks can also offset a nickname embedded in an actual name, or a false or ironic title embedded in an actual title; for example, Nat “King” Cole, Miles “Tails” Prower, John “Hannibal” Smith, and for mine, Brooke “Hobbs” Johnson (my maiden name is Hobby, and “Hobbs” stuck when I was in school).

Typographical considerations:

With regard to quotation marks adjacent to periods and commas, there are two styles of punctuation in widespread use. While these two styles are most commonly referred to as “American” and “British” and some style sheets provide no other names, some American writers and organizations use the British style and vice versa. Both systems have the same rules regarding question marks, exclamation points, colons, and semicolons. They differ on the treatment of periods and commas.

In all major forms of English, question marks and exclamation marks are placed inside or outside quoted material depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion, but colons and semicolons are always placed outside.

Did he say, “Good morning, Dave”?
No, he said, “Where are you, Dave?”

There are three major definitions of the word “gender”: vernacular, sociological, and linguistic.

In the U.S, the prevailing style is called American style, where commas and periods are almost always placed inside closing quotation marks. This style of punctuation is common in the U.S. and Canada, and is the style usually recommended by most American style guides. However, many American style guides specific to certain specialties, such as legal writing and linguistics, prefer British style.

When dealing with words-as-words, short-form works, and sentence fragments, this style places periods and commas inside the quotation marks:

“Carefree,” in general, means “free from care or anxiety.”
The name of the song was “Gloria,” which many already knew.
She said she felt “free from care and anxiety.”

This style also places periods and commas inside the quotation marks when dealing with direct speech, regardless of whether the work is fiction or non-fiction:

“Today,” said Cinderella, “I feel free from care and anxiety.” (fiction)
“Today,” said the Prime Minister, “I feel free from care and anxiety.” (non-fiction)

Many American style guides explicitly permit periods and commas outside the quotation marks when the presence of the punctuation mark insid the quotation marks will lead to ambiguity, such as when describing keyboard input:

To use a long dash on Wikipedia, type in “—”.

The prevailing style in the United Kingdom is to include within quotation marks only those punctuation marks that appeared in the quoted material but otherwise, to place punctuation outside the closing quotation marks.

“Carefree”, in general, means “free from care or anxiety”.
The name of the song was “Gloria”, which many already knew.
She said she felt “free from care and anxiety”.

When dealing with direct speech, British placement depends on whether or not the quoted statement is complete or a fragment. According to the British style guide Butcher’s Copy-editing, American style should be used when writing fiction. In non-fiction, some British publishers may permit placing punctuation that is not part of the person’s speech inside the quotation marks but prefer that it be placed outside. Periods and commas that are part of the person’s speech are permitted inside marks the quotation marks, regardless of whether the material is fiction.

“Today,” said Cinderella, “I feel free from care and anxiety.” (fiction)
“Today”, said the Prime Minister, “I feel free from care and anxiety.” (preferred in non-fiction)
“Today I feel happy,” said the woman, “carefree, and well.” (either)

In both major styles, regardless of placement, only one end mark (?, !, or .) can end a sentence. Only the period however, may not end a quoted sentence, when it does not also end the enclosing sentence, except for literal text:

“Hello, world,” she said. (American)
“Hello, world”, she said. (British non-fiction)
She said, “Hello, world.” (both)
“Hello, world!” she exclaimed. (both)
“Is anybody out there?” she asked into the void. (both)

Now, I’m going to take a minute to add in my personal quotation mark usage in fiction, just so you know you don’t necessarily have to stick entirely to the American or British style. When writing dialogue, I use the American style of punctuation, putting the comma or end punctuation within the quotation marks. But when I’m not writing dialogue, usually in non-fiction such as this blog post, I use the British non-fiction style.

So there you have it. Quotation marks. When to use them and how to use them. I will probably cover this again briefly when I cover dialogue later on. But until then, this is the last post on punctuation.

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. "It should be noted that quotations are not used for emphasis." Thank you! I see people doing this so often, and every time, I read it as "air-quotes" or ironic intention when they didn't mean it that way.